Jonathan Staal from Edinburgh Napier University is our new NADP adviser for Scottish affairs and all things that affect Scotland.
Lynn Wilson, our Executive Director, and Jonathan talk about his career, his current work and his views and ideas for the adviser-role in Scotland.
A great podcast for all our members who want to know about the role of our advisers but especially useful for our newer members who live in other areas of the UK and would like to see some ideas on how support in Scotland differs.
Full transcript available here and from the NADP Office
NADPVIC2021: Joining the dots of inclusive practice – what is the picture now?
Lynn Wilson in conversation with Jonathan Staal, NADP adviser for Scotland.
Lynn: Hello and welcome to the first one of our podcasts for conference and today we are welcoming one of our country advisers and it's Jonathan Staal from Scotland.
Now our NADP projects and plans really rely on input from our members and on top of that we have special advisers. Now, Jonathan is our adviser for events and policy in Scotland and so when we're planning anything we tend to run it by him or to ask for his input on possible events. So, you know who to contact if you actually want to get something done via NADP!
So, welcome Jonathan. Nice to see you today.
Lynn: OK. So, I just want to ask a few questions, so we can get to know you and the membership can get to know you. So, can you tell us a bit about yourself and the institution where you're working now?
Jonathan: I moved up to Scotland about 20 years ago, having studied here in the 90s. I’m currently working at Edinburgh Napier University. We're one of the post-92 unis in the city alongside Herriot Watt and Edinburgh.
Lynn: OK. So, you moved up to Scotland. Where do you hail from?
Jonathan: Originally London. When I first moved up, I worked at Abertay in Dundee and then I had a few years between Aberdeen and Napier working at Fife college.
Lynn: Oh great! Because we've got quite a few college members now. So, we always welcome input on how to support those that are at college; supporting students at further education colleges too. So, how big is your team at Edinburgh Napier?
Jonathan: So, we have four advisers working one-to-one with students and I’ve got my own small student caseload. We have Claire, our assistive tech. trainer; Heather, disabled student engagement worker; and two admin. colleagues keeping us all correct.
Lynn: We're hearing quite a lot from universities, that some universities have decided that their disability advisers can do their own admin and that seems to be causing some major problems. I always appreciated our administrators and I’m sure you do too.
Lynn: So, going back a bit to you. How did you start your career in disability support?
Jonathan: So, one of the roles I had at Abertay was setting up a retention-focused team which delivered study skills support and, with changes of personnel within the wider student services team. I found myself with responsibility for the disability team there to segue from a generalist role and slowly over the years, I picked up some more specialist knowledge and experience so was managing both the generalist study support team and the specialist disability service when I left Abertay; carried that over to Fife College and then this role at Napier is focused specifically on the disability team.
Lynn: OK. Great. So, if you started in England, you may be a bit aware of the English system for students who are studying for Higher Education at colleges and universities. Are there major differences for Scottish students studying at universities? I’m thinking here about application to university and application for disabled students too.
Jonathan: Application to uni is mostly through the UK system so no real difference there. I will start working with applicants over the summer based on, for the most part, what they've disclosed on their UCAS form or, for a few where they made direct contact with us, well in advance.
In terms of access to DSA, SAAS works differently to student finance which brings some benefits. So, it's being a smaller setting, it's easier to know the advisers within SAAS and follow-up queries, for instance. Napier is slightly different to most other unis. We don't do our own Needs Assessments in-house, but we do have really close working relationships with the main Access Centre which is based at Edinburgh College, next door to one of our campuses but that works really well.
On the other hand, there are some odd niggles. So, SAAS asks for a fresh application every year of study which produces more paperwork. For student finance, it's a bit more seamless once you're in the system, you're in the system. Swings and roundabouts.
Lynn: OK and so that's administered through the Scottish Government then?
Jonathan: Yes. SAAS is an agency under Scottish Government.
Lynn: All right. OK. Thanks. And is the application timetable about the same as well? I’m thinking in England, the fact that schools actually support students through the process at the moment, to some extent, but there's an awful lot of talk nowadays about post qualification application and starting university later. Is that similar in Scotland? Is that talk going on too?
Jonathan: Yes, because a lot of that is being driven by UCAS. So, we're fully embedded in the UK system. Whatever change happens south of the border will have an impact north of the border. I have a sense that there's probably less discussion up here about it just at the moment. So, we may have to play catch-up in the next six to nine months and see what happens.
Lynn: Yes. It's definitely being heavily discussed in England at the moment with… I think there's about four different systems that people are looking at and at NADP we're trying to make sure that disabled students are considered along the way as well. Due to the fact that it doesn't work well to have students applying to university in August and starting in October with no support in place.
Jonathan: Yes. We've certainly put a huge amount of effort over the past couple of summers to try and get in touch with as many applicants as possible and get some, at least basic support plans, in place for them as they start. I would do that. If we're only finding out about people in August and they're starting October, it'll make it so much more challenging.
Lynn: We’ve had students apply… blind students apply through clearing and had real problems in trying to set up support for just one student in that amount of time. The thought of trying to set up support for the whole of the disabled contingent… for support in university in a month is rather frightening.
Jonathan: Yes, because we're trying to make efforts to mainstream reasonable adjustments. The most common stuff people are asking for, and getting from us, are there by default. So, we're making moves in that direction but, however successful you are, you're still going to have a sizeable group of students where you need to make really detailed bespoke arrangements and, actually, just ironing out between you and the student what they need and how you can put it into practice. It just takes time. There's no getting around this.
Lynn: Yes. I think you know it's building on the inclusivity, we've been hearing about for the past few years now, and however supportive we are of inclusivity - and we really do want inclusivity - there's always those that will need extra adjustments on top of that. How is inclusivity practice across Scotland? We're hearing in England that it's… it can vary quite dramatically from one situation or one institution to another. Is that the same in Scotland? Or do you think it's quite good across the whole of the country?
Jonathan: I think that's probably true up here as well and I think everyone will be honest and say there is, within institutions, some subject areas… there's more of a subject-based identity around inclusive practice; there's more progress amongst practitioners across institutions. So, they're further forward. Others, especially where they have slightly more traditional, conventional, professional bodies-accrediting programmes, are slightly further behind.
We're certainly trying to make real moves in that direction at an institutional level but just going through QA quality processes means it all takes time. Even once you've got everybody on board agreeing “yes, this is the direction of travel”, it still takes time.
Lynn: The other term that we're hearing an awful lot about nowadays is ‘intersectionality’ and it's certainly helping NADP to think about how to work with our members to increase understanding that one size does not fit all when it comes to disabled students. It's an argument that we're actually using with Government when we're talking to them about quality control and the fact that one package would not fit every dyslexic student, for instance. Intersectionality comes into play. Is that a term that's generally in use in in Scotland and becoming more of a help?
Jonathan: Yes. It's part of the current debate. I think there are… as we try and look across, what could be silos of activity. I think there are lessons we're all trying to learn from each other. I think one of the things from efforts prompted by the Black Lives Matter movement, around representation in the curriculum especially. They resonate for me in terms of work around disability-inclusion because, I think, adapting teaching and assessment practice to make them more inclusive is only part of the story; and representation of disability and disabled people in the curriculum, which tends not to be a big part of the debate at the moment. I think that's also part of the story, and so there I can look to work. So, the Black Lives Matter-type activity and decolonisation of the curriculum activity and I think right there are lessons there. There are approaches to follow. I think intersectionality is valuable in different ways. Yes, as we think about the work we're doing to support each individual but also more broadly about sort of strategies and approaches to this work.
Lynn: Yes. It's interesting you should mention that because I’ve just been looking at one of our conference videos that's come through and De Montfort University started off with decolonising the curriculum and they're now looking at decolonising the University and analysing the students that are visiting - or the demographics of the students that are visiting - disability services and accessing support. So, I would recommend all members have a have a look at that video when it comes up on our site because they're doing some really interesting work and finding some hidden facts… that have been hidden by the intersectionality of the group they're actually working with.
Jonathan: Ok. Ill have a look.
Lynn: OK. It's been really difficult in the last few years for disability support with cuts and changes and… actually over the past five or six years, really, isn't it? And then everything was disrupted by Covid last year. Has there been any… or have you heard of any really outstanding good practice from any of your local institutions? Anything that really stands out for you in the way of the Covid changes or even further back, the cuts and changes.
Jonathan: At the university level we're quite a close-knit community. So, we meet regularly. We compare notes. We work in tandem. So, I think in that sense there's probably less standout practice because we're all moving in the same direction and similar sort of pace, if that makes sense.
Lynn: Yes. So, you have a group of… is it heads of service in Scotland meeting up as a group?
Jonathan: So, we'll meet three four times a year. Partly moral support as peers; partly compare notes; partly discuss, sort of, the general issues that affect us all. So, working relationships with SAAS and the funding application process, for instance, will be topical. Whether a Scottish Government consultation is coming up. We'll discuss them around the table. So, it works nicely that we're able to get together quite so regularly and we've managed to, through Teams through the past year and a bit of pandemic and lockdown.
In terms of people I look to for inspiration, De Montfort, Sunderland, Leeds, in this country. There's really interesting work around Universal Design in Ireland and I looked to AHEAD as one of NADP's partner organisations, as well as, sort of, the main voices and proponents of Universal Design in the States, in North America. So, they tend to be where I look for inspiration.
Lynn: OK. Great. Thank you. So, what do you think you personally can bring to your role as Scottish Adviser to the NADP Board? Are there things you've thought about investigating and bringing forward for us to help you with? Or have any colleagues approached you and said: ‘we could really do with some training on this?’
Jonathan: I think at the outset I’m hoping I can be a sort of bridge and provide the two-way communications. So, we're a good, strong, cohesive group within Scotland. More connections outwith Scotland and looking to the rest of the UK and signs to build bridges and effective working relationships with partners across the whole country, I think would be useful and then, similarly, when there are UK wide issues, and there's a distinctive Scottish agenda or element involved, hopefully I can bring that sort of Scottish flavour to NADP.
Lynn: OK. That's great. A bit more about you, I think. Just so our members can get to know you. So, none of us have been able to get away much in the last year and that's led to some great new hobbies and activities and sports and things. Have you taken up anything new?
Jonathan: I’m going to give you the most disappointing answer. No, probably not. I think at the end of this, if we get to the end of this, I'll make myself a t-shirt that says ‘here's the languages I never learned under lockdown; here's how I never learned to crochet; and so on. That's been a big disappointment.
Lynn: OK but it has also led quite a lot of us to evaluate our lives and our jobs. Have you actually thought much about your career and the way things have turned out while you've been reflecting this year?
Jonathan: I’ve spent most of the past year working literally in a cupboard so I think my main reflection is ‘I can do this - I can spend my days on my own in a cupboard’ but it's probably not that healthy for me.
I need to get back into… I also don't stay in Edinburgh. I’m out of town so was commuting in. At some point I’m going to have to re-embrace the commute. The joys of ScotRail and actually spending time in close company with other people, not just my family.
Lynn: And just as a final thing then, what advice would you give to a young disability adviser just starting out?
Jonathan: So, I’ve got a couple of new colleagues joining the team shortly, as a couple of long-standing colleagues head into their retirement, and I think I’ve been trying to set out sort of the basket – sort of the shopping list of support measures we can typically offer students really easily. So, they know that there are resources to draw on. But the key message is probably to start with the student themselves. Listen to them. No one comes as a blank sheet. We all know, and you can tease out in conversation, what their passages have been. Either deliberate or subconscious to start with the student listen to where they are and work with them to build from there.
Lynn: That's fabulous thank you very much and thank you for joining us today to tell us about your experiences and share Scotland with our membership. Thank you
AHEAD is the professional membership association for individuals committed to equity for persons with disabilities in higher education in the USA. AHEAD has members in all 50 states and over 10 countries.
AHEAD (Ireland) is an independent non-profit organisation working to create inclusive environments in education and employment for people with disabilities. The main focus of their work is further education and training, higher education and graduate employment.
Decolonisation of the Curriculum means “creating spaces and resources for a dialogue among all members of the university on how to imagine and envision all cultures and knowledge systems in the curriculum, and with respect to what is being taught and how it frames the world.” (Decolonising Curriculum Manifesto, Keele University)
Disabled Students’ Allowances (DSAs) are a Government grant in the United Kingdom (UK) available to students in Higher Education, originally established by the Department for Education and Skills (DfES). DSAs are grants to help toward meeting the additional studying costs or expenses that students face as a direct result of a medical condition, disability or specific learning difference.
Intersectionality is an analytical framework for understanding how aspects of a person's social and political identities combine to create different modes of discrimination and privilege. Intersectionality identifies multiple factors of advantage and disadvantage. The term was conceptualised and coined by Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw.
A post-1992 university (new university or modern university) is a former polytechnic or central institution in the United Kingdom that was given university status through the Further and Higher Education Act 1992, or an institution that has been granted university status since 1992.
Post Qualification Application (PQA) has been proposed in various formats over the past 20 years. The rationale for PQA is that teachers tend to underestimate the grades of some of their pupils from disadvantaged homes. They end up accepting places at less prestigious universities on the basis of low predicted grades. If they achieve high grades, all the places on the most competitive courses are already gone. The Sutton Trust reckons that each year several thousand pupils unjustly miss out on places at Russell Group institutions as a result of this.
The Student Awards Agency Scotland (SAAS) is an Executive agency of the Scottish Government. It supports eligible Scottish students by paying their tuition fees, as well as offering bursaries, Disabled Students Allowances and supplementary grants
Universal Design for Learning (UDL) is a way of thinking about teaching and learning that helps give all students an equal opportunity to succeed.
The Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS) is a UK-based organisation whose main role is to operate the application process for British universities.